Uncommon and inconspicuous: Passiflora lutea, or yellow passionflower, in Athens, GA

Passiflora lutea, yellow passionflower vine. Native to the U.S.

While walking my dog in Athens, I saw, rambling close to the sidewalk, the leaves of the native yellow passionflower vine, Passiflora lutea. I had never noticed it in Athens before, which made me wonder if it’s uncommon or just inconspicuous. It’s both. And it’s a coveted native plant for wildflower enthusiasts, and commercially hard to find.

Passiflora lutea’s shallowly-lobed leaves could easily be mistaken for baby kudzu, which might cause someone to yank it out of their yard, understandably so. The flower is greenish-yellow, an inch or less in size, and slightly covered by the leaves, making them difficult to notice, and perhaps to appreciate, as well. Those who notice will see a precious, intricate little flower, and long, spiraling tendrils. The leaves sometimes have subtle variegation, which is quite attractive.

Passiflora lutea, yellow passionflower vine foliage. The shallowly-lobed leaves resemble the dreaded kudzu and English ivy.

I first saw Passiflora lutea in abundance along a trail on the South Carolina side of the Chattooga River. Since then, I saw it growing at Autry Mill Park in Johns Creek, GA (formerly Alpharetta), and now I’m seeing it in Athens. In each of these places, P. lutea was growing in the shade.

I looked at the USDA Plant Database distribution map, which shows its distribution from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas east, and from Florida to Pennsylvania. These are also the states to which the plant is native, so clearly it hasn’t spread much.

Yellow passionflower is listed as endangered in Pennsylvania, while the Southern Weed Science Society considers it weedy and potentially invasive. Is this huge discrepancy a case of beauty residing in the eye of the beholder?

The University of Texas at Austin’s Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center–Native Plant Database lists yellow passionflower as a major food source for several species of butterfly larvae, including the Julia Heliconican, Mexican & Gulf fritillaries butterflies, and Zebra & Crimson-patch long-wing butterflies.

Passiflora lutea, yellow passionflower vine. The flower is named for symbolic imagery of Christ's crucifixion, called The Passion of Christ.

Medicinally, P. lutea will have some similar sedating nervine effects as Passiflora incarnata, or purple passionflower; however, it’s too uncommon to sustainably harvest. The fruits are edible, as are purple passionflower’s. If you are lucky enough to have this growing in your yard, let the fruits dry, collect the seeds, and start a P. lutea nursery.

P.S. – I’ve also now seen a small vine of P. lutea near the banks of the North Oconee River on the greenway near Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens, and on a wooded trail behind the UGA Intramural Fields.

Passiflora lutea, yellow passionflower vine, hiding underneath the foliage.
Variegated foliage of Passiflora lutea, yellow passionflower vine, on trail behind Intramural Fields at UGA, Athens, GA.
A beautiful vine, Passiflora lutea.

7 thoughts on “Uncommon and inconspicuous: Passiflora lutea, or yellow passionflower, in Athens, GA

  1. Carolyn Renee 10/11/2010 — 12:53 am

    I have this growing on my fence. Thought it looked like a wild miniature passion flower and so it is. It is growing in a Florida oak hammock near the Manatee River. I have seen several around my chain link fence. Want to try the fruit. Researching to see what part sedative. It is in herbal sleep preparations.

    1. Lucky you! The yellow passion flower is far less common than Passiflora incarnata. The leaves hold the most medicine. The flower has very little. The fruits are edible. Passionflower is good for stilling the cyclical thoughts that can keep people up at night, which is why it’s good for insomnia. It’s not a sedative like California poppy.

  2. Hey Holli, it’s Kelly (your herb class buddy) in ATL and I have plenty of this around the yard-many volunteers every year! Welcome to some-does act invasive though. Hope to see you at MFTE next month or 7Song class at ABG. I’m going to read more of your blogs now that I found you online.

    1. Hi Kelly, Good to hear from you. I’d love to see you up in these parts some time. The plants around Chattanooga are awesome. The skullcap and Indian pinks are blooming prolifically right now.

  3. What are your thoughts on gaba vs passion flower for anxiety in menopausal women?

    1. GABA can work fine in some menopausal women experiencing anxiety. I notice, though, that it often is not enough. Plants have more complex chemistry that can synergize with multiple areas of the body, which are often at play in menopausal anxiety. It isn’t just a GABA deficiency. What can be more helpful is pairing passionflower with motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) which is a bitter nervine, helping to enhance digestion, calm the nerves, and improve sleep. Having a bitter nervine in the formula can enhance digestion and improve bowel function. Many anxious menopausal women often have constipation. These other aspects can be a part of the picture that GABA might not address when used alone.

  4. Kathy Schreder 03/24/2013 — 7:11 am

    Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) was used traditionally in the Americas and later in Europe as a calming herb for anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and hysteria. It is still used today to treat anxiety and insomnia. Scientists believe passionflower works by increasing levels of a chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA lowers the activity of some brain cells, making you feel more relaxed.:

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